If the Winston-Salem Symphony’s search for a new music director had been a horse race with the candidates bunched together closely, their latest guest conductor broke clear and moved ahead at the January 9 concert. The Stevens Center was frigid, but onstage, the music making sizzled. Alexander Mickelthwate grew up in Frankfurt, Germany, where he began piano studies at the age of six and, as a teenager, studied cello and composition. He was also a member of a professional choir. The graduate of Baltimore’s Peabody Institute of Music has made a rapid rise, serving as a coach, pianist, and conductor at New York’s Amato Opera and the Karlesruhe Opera Studio. Most recently he has completed three years as Robert Spano’s assistant conductor with the Atlanta Symphony, followed by being assistant conductor, under Esa-Pekka Salonen, at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He is committed to broad orchestra outreach efforts and new music. He has guest conducted widely and led the Asheville Symphony Orchestra last October as part of their MD search.

Mickelthwate opened his concert with “Alegría” (“Happiness”) by Roberto Sierra (b.1953), the Puerto Rican composer currently based at Cornell University. The conductor said he wanted a short “fun piece by a living composer.” One of Sierra’s main interests has been folk-like tunes of Latin America. In a program note, he writes that “many pieces that express a playful and joyous mood are written in 6/8 meter”; he weaves “a complex web of harmonies and rhythmic interactions” that alternate between a vast vortex of sound and the simpler, playful basic pattern. The back of the Stevens Center Stage was filled with about every type of percussion instrument except the kitchen sink and used car parts! At its most intense surging, the piece was reminiscent of the dense wall of sound created by Carlos Chavez in Sinfonia India or Silvestre Revueltas in Sensemayá. Unlike those composers, however, Sierra provides much more variety and contrast with quieter passages and real melodies, not just a study in complex rhythms.

Mickelthwate’s real mettle as a conductor was evident in the delicate and subtle orchestral tapestry he wove for his violin soloist, Howard Zhang, in that fizzling cocktail, Saint-Saëns’ Third Violin Concerto. The woodwinds were outstanding, as was the tight ensemble within the string sections. Stage appearance isn’t everything but it can help a soloist. Zhang’s initial stance reminded me of a combination between Heifetz (“Old Stone Face”) and “Sad Sack” — we were not going to be seduced by body language or glamour! But then his bow touched the strings: what a full, rich, and warm tone he produced in the heavily bowed opening portion, and what clean and precise intonation he produced on the highest notes whether loud or soft! The conductor and the soloist chose perfect tempos to give the melodies plenty of room to fully blossom. Through the first two movements, all of Zhang’s expression came through his violin, but he broke into a broad grin several times during the finale. I look forward to sampling more of his art on several Naxos CDs.

The central Piedmont has not lacked for fine readings of Sibelius symphonies over the years. The NC Symphony has performed most of them, and between the Eastern Music Festival and Greensboro Symphony, the Triad has had its share, but only the Violin Concerto has been common on Winston-Salem Symphony programs. Mickelthwate said that until the last few years he hadn’t been a Sibelius fan, but his close association with Spano and Salonen, both of whom count the composer among their specialties, changed his mind. While not straying outside the interpretative mainstream, his reading of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 was superb, sounding freshly minted. All of the musicians of the Winston-Salem Symphony played their hearts out. The horns and other brasses were glorious. The vast icy Finnish landscape was etched by the strings’ exact playing of Sibelius’ epigrammatic scoring, and when needed, they played with a lush, full tone that belied their actual numbers. The woodwinds were even more marvelous than usual. Bravo! While all four movements were well played, Mickelthwate’s finely-nuanced control of the pizzicato-dominated second movement was exceptional. He has set a high benchmark for the final candidate.

*Updated 2/10: “The Winston-Salem Symphony today announced that Music Director Finalist No. 4, Mr. Alexander Mickelthwate, has withdrawn from its 2004-2005 Music Director search.

“‘The Symphony learned today of Mr. Mickelthwate’s decision to remove himself as a candidate from our Music Director search,’ said Dr. Malcolm Brown, chairman of the Symphony’s Search Committee. ‘Mr. Mickelthwate shared three marvelous performances with our community, and we wish him the best as he continues to pursue an exciting career.’

“Mr. Mickelthwate shared, ‘I had an absolutely terrific time in Winston-Salem – the experience was so positive, including hospitality and organizational talent. I was surprised and impressed by the quality and standards of the orchestra. My two classical concerts were literally a highlight so far in my career – they were on such a high professional level. I wish all the best to the other candidates and am sure the Symphony will find an outstanding Music Director.’

“Mr. Mickelthwate currently resides in Los Angeles, where he is Associate Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

“In the highly competitive and transitional industry of symphonic music, it is common for individuals to participate in multiple concurrent searches for orchestral positions, which also can lead to candidates withdrawing from searches to pursue other opportunities.

“Following his audition week in Winston-Salem, Mr. Mickelthwate received offers to join a Music Director search in progress in Omaha, Neb. ($5 million annual budget); and newly announced searches in Portland, Maine ($2.5 million) and Honolulu ($6.5 million). The Winston-Salem Symphony has an annual budget of $1.4 million….”